After playing Hollywood's Dark Gable and Star Wars' smooth criminal, he vanished. Now BILLY DEE WILLIAMS is on the hunt.

The eyes of Whoopi Goldberg are upon us. They’re loving eyes, suffused with warmth, understanding, humor, and just a hint of sadness. Gazing into them, you think two things: that Goldberg wears the mantle of earth mother well. And that Billy Dee Williams is one hell of a painter.

”I’d heard Whoopi liked my paintings,” says Williams, indicating the nearly completed portrait of Goldberg standing in the middle of his Beverly Hills home studio. ”We were talking one day, and she said, ‘No one’s ever painted me,’ so I said, ‘I’ll do it.”’

It’s an idyllic May afternoon and Williams, attired in a blousy silk shirt and surrounded by African, Asian, and Indonesian sculptures, is sipping red wine and discussing his adventures in Hollywood’s skin trade. His latest role is a bit part in the just-opened Eddie Griffin film, Undercover Brother, a sort of Austin Powers-blaxploitation farce. ”It’s really one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen,” says Williams, dutifully plugging the project. Whatever its comedic value, the movie’s title seems an apt descriptor for the past 20 years of Williams’ career.

Pegged in the ’70s as Tinseltown’s premier African-American leading man (”Dark Gable” was an early sobriquet), Williams spent most of the ’80s and ’90s in Hollywood purgatory, popping up in made-for-TV movies, making guest appearances on sitcoms like Martin and The Hughleys, acting in the occasional here-today-gone-today big-screen feature. It seemed an undignified fate for the debonair dude who launched countless female fantasies with his roles in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Mahogany (1975), and Nighthawks (1981), and played the smooth space pirate Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).

Williams, 65, is aware that his acting career hit the glass ceiling sometime after Jedi. He’s not inclined to harp on racism, yet it doesn’t seem too great a leap to surmise that some in Hollywood were threatened by his pansexual appeal back in the day. In the pantheon of African-American actors, fate placed Williams squarely between the nonthreatening Sidney Poitier and the erotically charged Denzel Washington, and he paid a price for being stuck between those two archetypes.

”When I came on the scene, it was, What is this — a black matinee idol?” he says. ”I presented something that they never expected or anticipated. Denzel and those guys are [making] it now, of course. Some of those movies he’s done, I tried to do those type of movies back in the ’70s. I couldn’t get the kind of backing that was necessary. And I was a hot property.” He sighs. ”My whole life has been, I have to wait until everybody catches up. It p — -es me off.”

He may be angry, but he’s not bitter. In fact, he reckons he hasn’t done too badly — an assessment borne out by a glance around his lush Beverly Hills home. He’s been reunited with his third wife, Teruko, after a brief separation; his paintings have been displayed in prestigious venues, including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.; he’s even got several novels under his belt (the latest, a romantic thriller called Twilight cowritten with Elizabeth Atkins Bowman, is due in July).